Not Finding Emmert Wolf

Or, the Mysterious Case of Using the Wrong Tools

Galen finding skeleton
Emmert? is that you?

I’ve been planning to write a piece about the thrill and agony of deciding on the most efficient and budget-minded methods for running a small creative company. This article started easily enough. I thought I’d begin with that old chestnut, “A man is only as good as his tools,” perhaps updating its gender pronouns before heading into the real guts of the post. Of course, like all good publishers, I strive to give proper attribution to the work of others, so I dutifully searched Google for the quote. What I found was suddenly much more interesting to me — yet still demonstrably relevant — than my original subject. The search yielded several results, all giving credit for this saying that everyone seems to know to a man named Emmert Wolf. What they don’t say, any of them, is who he was, nor where and when he lived, nor the reason history remembers this singular observation.

I think it’s safe to say that when faced with such a mystery, the first tool most busy folks would reach for is Google, or perhaps another widely-known search engine like Bing. What comes up for Emmert and his pithy phrase at these venues is a bit thin on detail. We find a photo of a grave marker for an Emmert J. Wolf who lived from 1894 to 1968, buried in Ogle County, Illinois. (Is this our Emmert?) In Google Books, we find a digitized scan from the “Union Postal Clerk & the Postal Transport Journal, Volumes 60-62,” mentioning an Emmert J. Wolf retiring from service in Illinois. Probably the same man, but is he our Emmert? There’s also a 1940 census entry for the above-mentioned Mr. Wolf from Illinois, one that tells us he was 45 years old at the time, the same age as his wife Uarda, and that they had a 13-year-old son named Joseph. Other than that, we find plenty of people sharing the quote about tools and crediting Emmert Wolf without giving any further context. (If only the census asked whether we’d ever come up with a really catchy phrase that had seeped into the common vernacular and would surely endure long after we are gone…)

The scholar, Periander in his library with printed text
“It’s called citing your sources, Brenda. Look it up.”

Here’s where some of the agony of running a business comes in: do we stick with tools that seem to work well enough or do we spend time and/or money to find better solutions? Having lived among academic types for many years, there is always a voice in my head that bids me dig ever deeper, to find the primary source, to uncover the most authentic perspective. Whatever the undertaking, my instinct calls for researching everything I can find on the matter, gathering other people’s opinions, testing the materials and the tools when available, searching my experience and hypotheses for likely pitfalls or wondrous potential outcomes. I know that there is more information out there about this quote and its origins. I just know that some proud relative of the true and honorable Emmert Wolf has an oft-repeated family anecdote, perhaps about the time her great uncle Em ruined the house’s plumbing system trying to save a buck by fixing it himself and then blamed it on that wrench he never did like.

A young woman with a broken pillar; representing fortitude
“Sure the pillar still works. A little glue, a little duct tape…”

We run into these moments every day, times when our hunch tells us that the results we are seeing are lacking, maybe even to our detriment, but we are forced to glance at the clock and back away. There’s no time. We can’t afford to think about this issue any more. I have a schedule to keep and a cobbled-together system of disparate tools that get me through the day somehow. To tinker with that delicate balance is to court real disaster, a chain reaction of broken cogs that would bring the whole operation to a hard and painful stop. I struggled enough finding and putting it all together the first time; why chance the need for a complete do-over?

Plus, I am cheap. At this point in the game, our publishing company has more time than money, so it’s vital that I find the right combination of tools and workflow in order to get the job done on time and within budget. The fewer dollars I spend on fancy bundles and marketing pitches, the more money we’ll be able to pay our artists and writers. I have had the benefit of working for some famously cheap bosses, and I truly learned many fundamentals of business frugality from them. One boss had a knack for finding tools we could use for free that mimicked bigger, more expensive enterprise suites. The tools often integrated well with other free or very inexpensive tools. Most of the time, that approach worked seamlessly and the apps and hardware did exactly what they are supposed to do – fade into the background and let us concentrate on our projects. The big caveat here is that though small, the company did employ a dedicated IT department to come to the rescue when one piece of the great machine stopped turning.

For Northwest Quest Publishers, we’ve been able to emulate that philosophy to a large extent, and my own technical avocational skills have truly come in handy. However, in addition to all the IT work, my duties encompass nearly all the financial, administrative, and marketing needs, and I share editorial and content creation and publishing decision-making with Beth. Like entrepreneurs and creative workers the world over, we are finding the days too short to accommodate all that we want to do. The tools we choose must help us do that work without calling attention to themselves. (They apparently also need to help me avoid falling down rabbit holes about mysterious men who may have worked for the postal service and may have uttered a famous phrase that would not make them famous…) In a future post, I will go into detail about the heavy research and careful decisions that have gone into shaping our initial business workflow, and I’ll also give some warnings about tools that totally failed us despite that diligence. In the meantime, if anyone out there can lead me to the definitive Emmert Wolf of the “good as his tools” fame, I would be most obliged!

Experiments and Prototypes

Sir James. Y. Simpson and friends drink liquid chloroform in an experiment, rather than inhaling the vapor. 

Beth and I have been jumping into the deep end the last couple weeks, learning new tools, trying untested theories and cockeyed plans, and forcing ourselves to take the next big step in this publishing venture. We have worked hard since January to lay firm groundwork for Northwest Quest Publishers. We’ve done our homework and registered the company with the state and the IRS, obtained a local business license and other paperwork pronouncing us official, created our website and social media accounts, and have dutifully updated them with stories that we are thrilled to share with the community. It has been exhilarating! However, we can hardly call ourselves publishers if we don’t ever get around to actually publishing something (and blog posts don’t count.)

Toward that end, we have brought together a few ideas that have been rolling around in the cabinets for years now, ideas that were begging to be brought to life, stories that fit NWQP’s GameLit and local history mission. Moreover, they are short, fewer than 20 pages, and we think that is an ideal place to start. We are working with a barebones budget, and we hope to avoid making gigantic, bank account-crushing mistakes as we learn the ropes. (We fully expect that we’ll blunder in some unforeseen way, neglect to plan for a particular deadline, say yes to some project that we would better have avoided and vice-versa, but…let’s see if months of practice and educating ourselves can help us skirt the worst of such missteps.)

We have been trying-out various tools for layout and editing and graphic design. We are digging deep into the long-buried memories in our heads from our printing days in school and scouring reference material for the current wisdom regarding typefaces, print resolutions, column inches, trim sizes, paper weights, and coatings. We’ve been in talks with many printers, weighing out the pros and cons of material and labor costs, product quality versus shipping charges and delivery times, big online companies versus small local shops. We can sense this discussion and the resulting decisions will continue ad infinitum, for as long as we are engaged in this industry. From our previous careers, we both have learned the importance of staying nimble and embracing change as keys to longevity and sanity. For our first product, our little prototype, we are using Scribus for layout and many free online tools for converting images and other files to the proper formats. After gathering paper samples and comparing quotes, we’ve decided to have our first batch of 100 books produced at Printing Center USA.

Baker City: Parade on Main Street, 1800-2100 blocks, 1885.

The prototype is a delightful little tale that Beth wrote to kick off our Oregon Territories series, a roleplaying game world set in the 19th century Pacific Northwest. The series will start with four stories, the first of which, Tinker’s Tools, takes place in Baker City, a town with roots going back to the final days of the American Civil War and the current home to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. The land’s memory goes back further than the arrival of white pioneers, of course. It’s a place rife with complex history, full of compelling characters with whom a game player can interact and brimming with stories to discover.

The Mint Saloon. Owner was J. W. Buckley. Sign at left says "Barber Shop in Lobby." At the right are two signs: "Puritan Club Pale Ginger Ale" "The Original [B?]arnum [Amer?]ica's Greatest [Hyp?]notist, [?] Laughs, [?] & Tears"
The Mint Saloon, Baker City, 1890-1910.

We are giddy and nervous because after all the trials and many errors, we finally sent the finished files to the printer a couple days ago. The hard copy proof of Tinker’s Tools is due to arrive tomorrow, and we can barely contain our emotions. It has been a 30-year dream for us leading to this moment, and we’re almost afraid to open the box when it arrives. Almost. We’ll most likely rip that box open with gusto and stare down at its contents for a good long while. More than licenses and taxes and websites, holding that first book in our hands will feel like this publishing company has truly come to life. Here’s to embarking on our own northwest quest. To everyone reading these lines or any of our books, we feel blessed to have you along on our travels.